Georges Duroy (Pattinson) is but a penniless North African war veteran looking for enough money to score a prostitute when he crosses paths with a fellow ex-soldier, and accepts his invitation to dine with him the following evening. By the end of supper, he's won a guest newspaper editorial spot, a sort of diary of a cavalry officer, from a powerful and influential publisher, Rousset (Colm Meaney), in part because his wife, Madame Walter (Kristin Scott Thomas), is kind of smitten with him.
Having little better to do, Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman) then takes it upon herself to basically pen all of Georges' columns, while Georges seduces the married Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), with whom he promptly sets up a love nest. When his himbo status and near-illiteracy are almost outed, Georges manages to connive his way further into the good graces of those who ensure him continued access to the finer things in life, eventually even marrying Madeleine, who seems ill suited to conventional love.
Co-directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerond, Bel Ami is a bundle of phony psychology and false motivations wrapped up in pretty, trite packaging. The costumes are nice and eye-catching, and the pompous, swelling orchestral compositions, from Rachel Portman and Lakshman Joseph de Saram, nudge viewers in the ribs, repeatedly, attempting to inject menace and substance into the proceedings, and letting the audience know what a Big Deal they're watching unfold.
Except they're not. Pattinson, pallid and sweaty throughout, seems in over his head, and never quite comfortable. He's had success before at pulling off layered angst and agitation, but here he seems resolutely of modern times, and not at all believable in the context of 1890s France. With a cipher's smile and that great sweeping hairdo, he fills a ruffled shirt, and little more. The other performances are, by degrees, much more engaging — Thurman is somewhat mesmerizing as the ahead-of-her-time Madeleine, and Thomas gets to have some fun as a society lady uncharacteristically gripped by hormonal fever — but given the degree to which Bel Ami rests on Pattinson's shoulders, and the dearth of insight it possesses, the movie falters early on, and never recovers.
Most fatally, there is neither a sense of canny manipulation nor a honest occupational rooting of Georges' social climbing in the status afforded him by his job as a newspaperman, the latter of which is a crucial component of the novel. Instead, there is only a series of thin contrivances and machinations through which various women throw themselves at Georges' feet. His wit and seduction are evidenced less by anything manifest in the script and more by the apparent absence of any other (nominally) single lad willing to throw these women a (literal) bone. With a tip of the cap to fellow critic Tim Grierson, the hackneyed, yawning Bel Ami would have been more entertaining if it were about Bill Bellamy, or at least just starred the same. For my full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Magnolia, R, 104 minutes)